Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Thirteen Months, Twenty-Seven Days

As some followers of this blogspot may be aware, I was unemployed for some time recently - a situation I was becoming increasingly distressed about, to the point where I found it difficult to focus on much more than the black abyss of my own joblessness. The good news is that I started working at a local television station last week. It's a job that I really, really wanted and that I'm extremely grateful to have gotten.

But along with my great enthusiasm for being back at work is a sobering sense of reflection on my too-long tenure on unemployment. I worked for National Amusements as a theater manager for ten years and when they sold the majority of their assets to a rival chain, I expected some new policies and procedures would need to be implemented. As it turned out, there was but I wouldn't be staying to implement them.

Deciding to give my notice rather than accept the new owner's job offer was a difficult decision and I spent most of the time in the title of this post wondering whether or not I had chosen wisely. On the one hand, to stay would not have been beneficial to me or my family. In fact, it would have been almost a sure guarantee to ruin.

But, as I often thought as I sent out one resume after another to no avail, at least it would have been a job. A job I could no longer make a living off of or receive benefits from, true, but at least it was a paycheck - something to work with. I frequently agonized as to whether I had tragically erred in making a young man's decision to leave to look for something better rather than make a decision more suited to my age and play the safer hand.

When I first left, I felt confident that I would find new work in a relatively short amount of time and I held on to that optimism for the first six months or so. Even though nothing was panning out, I didn't doubt that a break would come. But by the beginning of this year I really begin to worry about whether I would ever be able to break back into the working world.

They say that many people on long term unemployment get to a point where they just give up and I can definitely sympathize with that. News reports about how many companies refuse to hire people who aren't already working and about how the longer a person is unemployed, the more unemployable they become sure don't help.

At the top of this post is a picture of my old desk area at Enfield Cinemas, wallpapered with drawings from my son Owen. I look at that pic now and it seems like it came from another lifetime. I had no idea when I took that shot on my last day of work in April of 2010 what kind of journey I had ahead of me. Now that I'm working again, some might say that I just wasn't meant to get any of those other jobs and that, in the end, things worked out for the best.

I agree on that - but being unemployed in today's America was a long and humbling experience that I'll never forget.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Flash Back

In light of the sad letdown of Green Lantern, I thought I'd look back on a much more successful adaptation of a DC Comics mainstay - the live-action TV series based on the exploits of The Fastest Man Alive, aka The Flash. Of course, calling The Flash "successful" refers solely to its artistic merits as the show died a quick death after one season following its debut on CBS in 1990. The Flash was an expensive venture for CBS, but a seemingly good bet in the wake of Tim Burton's Batman (1989). Ironically, though, The Flash just didn't find its audience fast enough.

Starring John Wesley Shipp as forensic scientist for Central City PD, Barry Allen, The Flash stuck to the Scarlet Speedster's Silver Age roots. Even though the character of Barry Allen had been dead in the comics for several years since the multi-verse altering events of the DC Comics miniseries Crisis on Infinite Earths and the mantle of The Flash had been taken up by Barry's young nephew, Wally West, it was Barry that took center stage in the TV show. Likely this decision was based largely on the fact that Barry's job on the police force was an ideal facilitator for story opportunities. As in the comics, a bolt of lightning strikes Barry as he works with chemicals inside his lab, with the resulting explosion giving him the miraculous gift of super-speed.

In an effort to cope with his new found powers, Barry turns to S.T.A.R. Labs scientist Tina McGee (Amanda Pays) who outfits Barry with a suit initially conceived for deep sea diving that serves to resist the incredible friction that occurs when Barry runs at top speeds. Looking for revenge after the death of his cop brother (Tim Thomerson) at the hands of gang members, Barry goes into action and swiftly develops a taste for crime fighting.

Developed by Danny Bilson and Paul De Meo (the duo who also scripted 1991's The Rocketeer), The Flash was clearly indebted to Burton's Batman. The noir-ish design of The Flash's stomping grounds of Central City owed its inspiration to Anton Furst's production design on Batman, the molded Flash suit with its sculpted musculature aped the style of the Batman suit that Michael Keaton had worn (it was designed by the same creator, Robert Short), and even Batman composer Danny Elfman contributed The Flash's theme music (with Shirley Walker, who would go on to handle the musical chores on Batman: The Animated Series, handling the regular score). But despite owing so much creatively to Burton's film, The Flash had its own charm and personality.

Barry Allen, like many of DC Comics' heroes, was never a particularly interesting character but Shipp made for an ingratiating lead. As his Girl Friday, Amanda Pays was an attractive and believably brainy presence and the ongoing romantic tension between Tina and Barry simmered nicely on a low burner throughout the season - even as Barry found himself getting involved with a number of other women, such as Joyce Hyser as tough female P.I. Megan Lockhart. The Flash also had a winning supporting cast, including Alex Desert as Barry's dreadlocked lab mate, Julio Mendez, and Biff Manard and Vito D'Ambrosio as frequently bickering street cops Murphy and Bellows.

Famous - and soon-to-be-famous - guest stars abounded, including Jeffrey Combs, Ken Foree, Dick Miller, Richard Belzer, David Cassidy, and Angela Bassett. Perhaps the most memorable guest star, though, was Mark Hamill as The Trickster. The most garish foe the TV Flash fought, Hamill's performance owed a debt to Frank Gorshin's manic, giggling Riddler and he gave The Flash a run for his money not once but twice, being introduced midway through the season and then encoring in the season finale "The Trial of the Trickster."

For a show that CBS spent so much money on, the network not only did surprisingly little to promote it but, with frequent schedule changes, seemed out to make it impossible for any one to find. During its year-long run, The Flash suffered in competition against the likes of The Cosby Show and The Simpsons and saw several of its episodes preempted by coverage of the Gulf War. By the end of its first season, it was disappointing - if not especially shocking - to learn that CBS felt The Flash had run its course. On the upside, at least CBS footed the bill for a full season and on top of that the show was really friggin' good.

Ironically, in interviews back then the show's producers and stars touted the fact that this was a darker, more adult show than some might expect from a series based on a gaudy superhero. But what passed for mildly dark superheroics in 1990 - basically anything that didn't reflect the camp sensibility of the '60s Batman series fit that bill - simply looks like a sturdy action show now. The show had heart, a love of pulp adventure (two of the series' best episodes - "Ghost in the Machine" and "Deadly Nightshade" - featured the character of Nightshade, a hero in the mold of The Green Hornet and the Golden Age version of The Sandman, who predated The Flash as Central City's masked protector), and the best production values that CBS could afford.

Although The Flash didn't find an audience in its day, it has in the years since as an ever-growing number of fans have continued to acclaim it, giving the show and its creators a delayed victory. In that sense, The Flash was perhaps more tortoise than hare but sometimes the race isn't won by speed but by perseverance.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Shallow Hal

Superhero films tend to be graded on a generous curve by comics fans. Maybe a little less so now that a good number of quality adaptations have appeared but many comics fans are still accustomed to settling for less and lousy adaptations are passively accepted with comments like "well, it's just cool that they made the movie at all."

I admit, I'm guilty of that myself. The fact that they actually made a Ghost Rider film makes it hard for me to complain that it wasn't all that it could've been. In that light, maybe Green Lantern shouldn't be judged so harshly either. I've never followed the book that closely but I love the concept of GL and I'm glad that Warner Bros.' one-time plans to adapt it as a comedy vehicle for Jack Black didn't happen. But still, this version with Ryan's not good.

Had Green Lantern appeared in the mid-90's, it would have looked ok next to movies like Batman Forever (1995) and Spawn (1997) but next to Spider-Man 2 (2004), Iron Man (2008), or The Dark Knight (2008) it looks pathetic. It's not nearly spectacular enough (for such a cosmic hero, the movie spends way too much time on mundane, Earth bound business), the love story is flat, and the villains are an embarrassment.

Seriously, I know that both Hector Hammond and Parallax are from the comics but maybe some rethinking was in order so that this wouldn't be a movie about a superhero matching his epic might against a guy with a hydrocephalic head and a sentient, amorphous pile of shit. Just saying.

But weak villains, a lame romance, and lack of spectacle aside, my dislike of Green Lantern ultimately comes down to the fact that I did not like Reynolds as hot shot test pilot turned superhero Hal Jordan. Not because he didn't match my image of Hal from the comics but because as written and performed, the Hal as seen in Green Lantern is kind of a douchebag. To be fair, Hal has always been portrayed as someone lacking on the personal front. After all, this is a character who had to have it pointed out to him in the famous run of Green Lantern/Green Arrow by Denny O'Neil and Neal Adams that in being a star-spanning, intergalactic cop that he was often oblivious to the everyday suffering of many people on Earth, particularly minorities.

However, irregardless of that history in the comics, I'm sure that director Martin Campbell and Reynolds had every belief that the Hal they were presenting to us in Green Lantern was a likable guy. I just think they failed.

Reynolds typically plays super-confident wise-asses and I think that works as long as his character is a loser in enough other respects so that some sympathy for him can creep in. In Green Lantern, though, outside of the fact that as a young boy Hal saw his pilot dad die in a runway explosion, there's not a lot to empathize with.

If Thor was the story of a God who can only become a hero once he is punished for his arrogance, in contrast Green Lantern is the story of a man who becomes a hero by being rewarded for his arrogance. As the movie begins, Hal is shown to be a cocky jerk, indifferent to any hardships his actions might cause. Then he becomes the recipient of the most powerful weapon in the universe after which he remains essentially the same cocky jerk he was before.

The problem with Hal is best exemplified by his conflict with Hector Hammond (Peter Sarsgaard), schluby scientist turned supervillain. Hammond's exposure to the evil entity known as Parallax gave him newfound mental powers but it also transformed him from a balding, unkempt nobody into a disgusting freak with a giant melon head. What little we know about Hammond is that he wasn't a bad guy initially and even later his most destructive acts all seem rooted in his long-simmering resentments at being a laughing stock to his class of college students, being a disappointment to his politician father (Tim Robbins as US Senator Robert Hammond), and being perpetually invisible to gorgeous Carol Ferris (Blake Lively). This is a guy who's been carrying around a lot of pain for years.

Hal, on the other hand, is a guy who's always hitting the jackpot. He's incredibly handsome, a naturally gifted pilot, the object of Carol's affection (even when she's angry with him, it's usually only because she wants him to grow up and realize his true potential), and on top of all that he gets to be a full-fledged superhero! At one point, Hal removes his ring to prove to the raging Hammond just how ordinary he really is. But the thing is, when he takes off the ring and his GL costume vanishes, he's still Ryan friggin' Reynolds! It's not like finding out that underneath Spider-Man's mask is really a gawky teenage science nerd. No, underneath Green Lantern's shiny exterior is a male supermodel.

To have this guy who falls into a big bucket of win every time he turns around getting the best of someone who's only gotten the shit end of everything his whole life is not such a fine superhero tale in my eyes.

Based on Sarsgaard's subtle reactions, I have to wonder if he was the only person involved in the production who properly perceived how the deep inequities between Hammond and Hal would drive almost anyone in Hammond's shoes mad. When Hammond realizes that both he and Hal received their powers from more or less the same source but with very different results, his rueful moan speaks volumes.

After his showdown with Hammond, Hal goes on to save the people of Coast City from the living shit-storm known as Parallax so at least he isn't always making a name for himself by pushing back hard against the big-headed losers of the world but when the climatic battle of a superhero film is between the hero and a flowing mass of diarrhea, that's a major problem in itself.

As Green Lantern, Hal saves lives because that's part and parcel of the genre, but he's not any fun to root for. Reynolds has proven to be charming elsewhere but Green Lantern makes the mistake of having a Superman with no Clark Kent to balance him out (Reynolds would've fared far better as the Kyle Rayner GL, a struggling young freelance artist). As a comics fan, I would be glad that they made a movie out of Green Lantern if only they hadn't made it quite so easy for Hal to be a hero.

Friday, June 17, 2011

There's Some Horror Daddin' Going On

In honor of Father's Day, the Horror Dads have assembled to celebrate. Instead of our usual roundtable format, though, this time around head Horror Dad Richard Harland Smith has given us each a separate spotlight in which to discuss a horror movie dad that sparked our interest. Speaking for myself, I had a tough time narrowing down my picks. In the end I went with a dad that my own fatherhood forced me to reevaluate - Robert Thorn (Gregory Peck) of The Omen (1976).

Not to pimp this post too hard but, irrespective of my own contribution, I really think this is one of the finer Horror Dad offerings to date. I love what Dennis Cozzalio, Paul Gaita, Greg Ferrara, Nicholas McCarthy, and Richard Harland Smith have to say about their choices and I bet you will too.

Check out the latest from the Horror Dads at TCM, and we wish you all a Happy Father's Day!

Also, if you're new to The Horror Dads, why not catch up on some of our previous posts?

Salem's Lot (1979)

The Curse of the Cat People (1944)

Who Can Kill A Child? (1976)

The Mist (2007)

And our initial three-part discussion on fatherhood and fandom:

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Reflections In A Silver Sphere

One good thing about the disappointing Super 8 is that its 1979 setting prompted me to revisit 1979's own Phantasm. You see, it just isn't the '70s unless there's some thick-ass shag carpeting and Phantasm has that covered:

In his non-fiction essay on horror, Danse Macabre, Stephen King argued that not all, but surely a very large share, of horror tales could be assembled under three major archetypes: The Thing, The Vampire, and The Werewolf. A film like Alien (1979) would be an example of The Thing. Dawn of the Dead (1978), with its scenes of cannibalism and blood-drinking, has its roots in the myth of the Vampire. And the shadow of The Werewolf can be seen in a film like Psycho (1960), in that it features a character who is outwardly normal but who hides a secret self. But Phantasm? Good luck finding any antecedents or close company for The Tall Man (Angus Scrimm).

Having a mortician as the villain of a horror film isn't in itself such a radical notion. For a society like ours that lives in deep denial about death, morticians and undertakers are naturally ghoulish figures.

The mysteries surrounding their practices, and the fact that most people show an aversion to learning too much about how bodies are prepared for burial, just fuels the taboo aura surrounding their profession. But while morticians and undertakers had appeared in horror films before Phantasm (as in 1964's The Comedy of Terrors and 1966's The Undertaker And His Pals), none had featured a mortician who was also an interdimensional (or is it intergalactic?) being.

We tend to take the original Phantasm a little for granted since it's been in our collective consciousness for over thirty years and since three (mostly worthy) sequels have recycled its imagery but it's worth remembering just how surprising this movie was in 1979. I mean, prior to Phantasm, nobody ever saw anything like this:

Flying silver spheres that drill into people's skulls? That was some next level shit. And just when you thought that Phantasm had played every card it could possibly have to play, Coscarelli introduced us to The Tall Man's "space gate" and this trippy movie got even trippier:

When we think of examples of sci-fi horror, we typically think of films like The Thing from Another World (1951) or Alien - films where either an alien comes to Earth or we go out to space and encounter it. Or else films in which technology runs amuck, like Demon Seed (1977). There are no other sci-fi horror film like Phantasm, though. In fact, I'm still not even sure it is sci-fi.

But with sights like this, don't you think it must be?

Phantasm is the only big horror hit of the '70s that has escaped a remake or a reboot and I think it's because no one beside Coscarelli is capable of navigating that universe. As fans, we know that no one can make a Texas Chainsaw movie the way that Tobe Hooper can or make a Halloween movie like John Carpenter but there's something deceptively simple on the surface of those films that allows some idiots to believe that they can but with Phantasm, I think even the densest studio exec must intuitively realize that they're out of their league.

The same year as Phantasm, Tobe Hooper's adaptation of Stephen King's Salem's Lot featured a young protagonist that was strikingly similar to Phantasm's thirteen-year-old hero Mike Pearson (A. Michael Baldwin). But while Mark Petrie (Lance Kerwin) of Salem's Lot was a horror buff whose interests lent him an edge against the evil enveloping his community, Mike had no such advantage. After all, late night creature features can tell you how to kill a vampire but what's a Tall Man?

Being a geek would not have helped Mike. A bedroom full of Aurora models wouldn't have been an asset to him. It does help Mike, however, that he grew up with an older brother that knows his way around cars and guns and can give him useful advice like "Don't aim a gun at a man unless you intend to shoot him. And you don't shoot a man unless you intend to kill him."

Speaking of Mike's older brother, Jody (Bill Thornbury), Wes Craven and the folks behind the Scream franchise like to claim that what makes Scream different from other horror franchises is that it continues the stories of the protagonists, rather than just bringing back the same villain in each sequel to attack a different set of victims. Well, on that count it must be said that Phantasm was there first. They might have had to recast the role of Mike for Phantasm II (1988) but the character was still there and A. Michael Baldwin returned to the Phantasm phold for III and IV. For four movies, Coscarelli made the Phantasm series as much about the camaraderie between Mike, Jody, and their ice cream-slinging buddy Reggie (Reggie Bannister) as much about the immortal evil of The Tall Man.

Some would also say Phantasm had the jump on another famous Craven franchise, A Nightmare on Elm Street. In the way that this movie jumps back and forth between dream and reality, Phantasm anticipated Craven's 1984 sleeper hit by five years. I say this not to take anything away from Craven's accomplishment, only to note just how ahead of the curve Coscarelli was.

Or maybe I should say, how on the ball he was.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Super Lame

I love coming of age films. I love monster movies. And I was ten in 1979 so I'm a ripe target for any sort of nostalgia for that time. Oh, and I'm a Steven Spielberg fan to boot.

So given all that, you'd think that Super 8, the latest film from writer/director J.J. Abrams, would press all the right buttons with me. It's a monster movie taking place against the backdrop of a coming of age film set in 1979, filmed as a loving homage to late '70s/early '80s Spielberg. I'm telling you - this is not a movie you need to hard sell me on! Even though I haven't been too taken with anything that Abrams has done to date, I thought for sure that Super 8 would make a fan out of me - at least for this one film. However, I'd be hard-pressed to think of any other movie in recent memory that's irritated me on such a grand scale.


First of all, let's address some points that might be perceived as nit picky - like the fact that Abrams get so much wrong with the 1979 setting. If a filmmaker is going to make the decision to set their film in a particular time period, I think they should feel obliged to get as many details right as they can. Especially if it's a time that the filmmaker was old enough to have lived through. If some twenty-two year-old dope made the mistakes that Abrams makes in Super 8, I might have been inclined to be a little more forgiving but Abrams should remember certain things about '79 - like the fact that words like "bitchin'", "bogus", and "mint" were not slang terms back then. To hear those words coming out of the mouths of characters who are supposed to be living in '79 is instantly jarring. It sounds wrong because it is wrong. In contrast, watch Richard Linklater's Dazed and Confused (1993) if you want to see a movie made by someone who has a crystal clear memory of the time they grew up in.

I was also put off by the repeated use of the term "production value" by Super 8's aspiring filmmaker Charles Kaznyk (Riley Griffths). That's the way kids talk today, in a world where everybody with even a passing interest in the movies is hip to filmmkaing jargon, but not how they talked in '79. And when Charles takes his film to a photo shop to be developed, he would have known that it would take up to several days to get his developed film back. He wouldn't ask if it could be done "overnight" - that's a modern term. At best he would've asked if it could be done by "tomorrow." But Abrams has Charles ask for "overnight" just so that he can get a laugh from modern viewers when the photo shop clerk tells the kid that "nothing is overnight" - ha, ha! everything used to take forever back then!

Also on the fact-checking front, the Rubik's Cube didn't come to the US until 1980 so having a character referring to an object as being "like a white Rubik's Cube" is pure carelessness. Further, Walkmans were another item not sold in the US until '80. Even then, as with most new technology, the prices were so high that the average person didn't own them right away. But yet in Super 8, some small town, minimum wage gas station attendant in the summer of '79 is rocking out with his new Walkman - a erroneous detail that Abrams only includes to score a cheap chuckle out of audiences who can't help but laugh at a hilarious cameo from old technology.

Some might think I'm needlessly piling on Abrams for his lack of attention to detail. But the mistakes made in this film are so incredibly lazy and so easily detected by anyone with even the most half-assed recollections of 1979 that Abrams should rightly be called out for them.

But, some will argue that none of this matters. After all, nobody is walking into Super 8 expecting a boring history lesson, right? OK, for the sake of argument then, let's say that none of it matters. But it is fair to say that audiences showed up to Super 8 expecting a kick-ass monster movie, right? After all, the trailers and TV spots were coy about what Super 8 was about but when you see shots of an unknown thing pounding its way out of a crashed railroad car, it's fair to think that some manner of strange creature is going to be rampaging through this movie.

To see a space creature or genetic mutation, or whatever Super 8's monster is, terrorizing a small town and taking on the might of the military sounds good to me so go ahead and show me an amazing creature and I'll gladly let all instances of historical inaccuracies be forgiven. Oh, wait. Turns out this aspect of the film is a total wash out, too. As a creature feature, Super 8 is nothing but weak sauce. I didn't think any movie monster could be more poorly designed than the one in the Abrams-produced, Matt Reeves-directed Cloverfield (2008) but Super 8 has proved me wrong. Nice going, assholes!

Abrams keeps his monster in the shadows for the greater part of Super 8, which is fine. I don't mind waiting for a pay-off and it's an honorable monster movie tradition to tease audiences for as long as possible before revealing the full sight of the monster. I mean, look at how well that approach worked in Ridley Scott's Alien (ironically, a 1979 film). But when we finally do see the monster here, it looks like ass - just another forgettable CGI creation. For decades, makers of B-movies always did their best to hit home runs with their monsters. Whether these monsters came from outer space, from a scientist's lab, from the fall out of nuclear testing, or from the depths of hell, they had to be monsters that audiences would thrill to and remember. Filmmakers used to take pride in their monsters, and with good reason. But who the fuck would take ever pride in Super 8's monster? Seriously, I would take Ro-Man from Robot Monster(1953) over Super 8's creature. At least a friggin' dude in a gorilla suit with like a deep sea diving helmet with antennae is memorable:

It used to be that with limited technology and funds that resourceful moviemakers were able to create the most indelible monsters. Some were so good that even if they were only on screen for mere seconds, they achieved cinematic immortality - like the demon from Curse of the Demon (1957). On the other hand, the monster in Super 8 is so bad, such a miserable digital turd, that you're already forgetting it even as you're looking at it. On top of it's lousy appearance is the fact that it's character is so half-baked. We're supposed to feel some kind of sympathy for it because we learn that it wasn't a violent creature until it spent years being poked, prodded, and experimented on by scientists but outside of when it abstains from eating the film's protagonist, we never see any of it's endearing side so it's hard to feel much when it makes its exit back into space at the end.

Speaking of that exit, how I would have loved it if the alien had finally rebuilt its spaceship, took off with the entire town watching on in awe, then once it got to a certain height in the sky, it unleashed a death ray that obliterated the town as a final "fuck you" for its years of torment 'cause this is one alien that doesn't play the forgiveness game! Later, in an ironic coda, authorities could have discovered the lost reel of super 8 footage that proves the existence of the alien. Da-da-da-duuumm...

But to have that ending would've meant that the film that Super 8's young protagonists were working on had something to do with the movie itself and, well, it doesn't.

I'll get to the film within the film's lack of importance in a sec but first I've got to say that if a bunch of kids were making a zombie film in '79 they'd be emulating the blue-faced zombies of Dawn of the Dead (1978). Instead, the first zombie we see in the super 8 footage with its white, pupil-less eyes looks downright Raimi-esque. Now, one could say that Raimi himself was making the first Evil Dead in '79 or thereabouts and maybe these kids are just equally visionary but I'm not buying that. Still, I'm willing to let this point go.

What I can't let go is the poor integration of the kid's movie making with the larger storyline. One thing that might have helped is if the main character, Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney), had been the wanna-be filmmaker. Instead, he's the movie's make-up and model guy and even that aspect to him isn't fully explored. It would have been much more effective to have sensitive Joe be the director rather than his abrasive buddy Charles - especially with Joe dealing with the fallout from the tragic death of his mother in an industrial accident.

To have Joe be single-mindedly focused on making his movie as a way to shut out his grief and escape into another world would have made sense. Instead, the movie only seems like a project that Joe's participating in out of an obligation to his friend and because it gives him the opportunity to get close to Alice (Elle Fanning), who's just been cast as the lead actress in what was formerly an all-male film.

To be positive, there were a couple of details concerning the kid's filming that I enjoyed. One, after Charles gets an Oscar-worthy dramatic take from Alice as she delivers her lines on a train station platform, he does another take of the same scene a minute later against the deafening rush of a coming train in order to maximize his "production values," not considering the fact that all the noise from the train is drowning out anything that Alice is saying. And in another clever scene, the kids use classic low budget ingenuity to employ a group of soldiers as unwitting background extras in a scene.

Other than offering these nicely observed moments, though, nothing about the fact that these kids are making a movie makes any real difference to the plot of Super 8. To have a movie called Super 8 but have the act of moviemaking be superfluous is an especially egregious failing. If only these kids had been making a monster on the loose movie, using every old-school method they had - stop-motion, puppetry, miniatures, etc. - and then find that both to their glee and horror they have a real live flesh and blood monster that they can film but only if they're willing to risk life and limb to get close to it. That I would've enjoyed. That, or the many other possible scenarios where Super 8 could've actually been about young moviemakers making movies. I've heard that Charlie's finished zombie movie plays during the end credits, which sounds like a cute touch, but after suffering through the entirety of Super 8, I just didn't care enough to stay and watch it so I left.

That leaves only Super 8's coming of age story to discuss but there too, Super 8 fails. The cast is very good and the performances are natural and endearing (particularly Elle Fanning) but the character arcs are weak and neither Joe nor Alice do much coming of aging. I don't mean that in a lewd way - just that they end up pretty much where they started at as people, except just a little bit closer to each other. Joe ostensibly has the burden of grief over the loss of his mother to overcome and that's what the climax hinges on but yet this loss is never shown to be such a crippling thing for Joe so to have it be a key moment at the end where he literally and symbolically "lets go" of his mother is a forced bit that doesn't seem related to the movie before it. We know that Joe surely still misses his mother but yet he seems awfully well-adjusted, like he's already moved on in most respects (after the winter-set opening scene, the main story picks up four months after his mother has passed), so for Abrams to stage a big moment where Joe lets go of a locket with his mother's picture doesn't have the emotional impact that it's meant to.

If we're interested in anything, it's how Joe and Alice's stab at romance will shape up but there's not even much to that. The two like each other pretty much from the start so Joe doesn't have to do anything to win Alice's affections except to linger on her porch early on and the only major obstacle their relationship has to overcome is their feuding fathers - such a nothing, lightweight "feud" that there's never any doubt that it'll be resolved as quickly as it takes to make a manly handshake.

Super 8 is a meticulous act of mimicry but anyone who remembers seeing films like Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) or E.T. (1982) in the theaters will vividly remember what unprecedented events they were and they'll know that Super 8 just doesn't compare, not even with Spielberg himself on board as producer. Some will call this movie an unabashed love letter to both Spielberg and to the spirit of moviemaking itself. But please, just open your eyes and call it what it really is: junk mail.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Head Of The Class

The sub-genre of comic book adaptations isn't exclusively composed of superhero-related material. With films like Ghost World (2001), Road to Perdition (2002), American Splendor (2003), and A History of Violence (2005), "comic book movies" aren't just about costumed crime fighters. That said, when fans debate about which comic book film deserves the title of Best Comic Book Film, they're typically talking about movies where people wear tights and fly around.

Once upon a time, that was a very slim group of movies to discuss. You had the Superman and Batman franchises, a smattering of pulp or pulp-inspired adaptations - like The Rocketeer (1991), The Shadow (1994) and The Phantom (1996) - and a mostly embarrassing handful of Marvel Comics films.

All that changed in 2000 with X-Men. Marvel finally got in the game for real with Blade (1998) but it was X-Men that really put the Marvel movie brand on the map. Director Bryan Singer, with the help of producer (and X-Men fan) Tom DeSanto, made X-Men into a major evolutionary leap for comic book adaptations. Even if it wasn't quite a classic, it was definitely an important building block whose success would make other, better films possible.

Whereas fans once had to squint to see the faint remnants of their favorite comic characters in the movies that bore their namesakes, fidelity to the source material is now almost a given and X-Men helped that happen. In fact, we've become so accustomed to comic book adaptations taking their cues directly from the books that it's no longer a novelty when filmmakers get it right. But there's getting it right and then there's really nailing it and X-Men: First Class is an example of the latter.

In telling the tale of how two young leaders emerged from a budding young age of mutants in the 1960s - telepath Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) and master of magnetism Erik Lehnsherr (Michael Fassbender) - X-Men: First Class combines elements of history, social allegory, coming of age drama, James Bond-ish action, splashy superheroics, and revolutionary ideology. And yet, incredibly, it never seems to be biting off more than it can chew. The script by director Matthew Vaughn (Kick-Ass) and writers Jane Goldman, Ashley Edward Miller, and Zack Stentz is swift-moving and uncluttered, despite its multitude of mutants and its political milieu.

As for how well First Class functions as a prequel to the X-Men trilogy and X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009), I couldn't say as it's been awhile since I've watched any of those films but the film begins as Singer's original X-Men did, with young Erik being separated from his parents in a concentration camp. Only now instead of the film jumping ahead to the present day, we see how the young boy's uncanny ability to bend metal with his mind catches the attention of scientist Dr. Schmidt (Kevin Bacon). Thanks to Schmidt's sadism, Erik's talents are tragically brought further to the surface.

By the '60s, Erik has become a hunter of Nazi war criminals, travelling the world and using his mutant talent to execute the guilty for their crimes. At the same time, Charles Xavier is covertly enjoying the fruits of his telepathic gifts until CIA agent Moria MacTaggert (Rose Byrne) approaches him with the prospect of a world-changing assignment - rooting out a mutant who's intent on manipulating global nuclear tensions. This mutant is Sebastian Shaw, formerly Dr. Schmidt, and before long, both Xavier and Erik are working together with the American government to bring an opposing force of mutants to bear against Shaw and his so-called Hellfire Club.

McAvoy and Fassbender prove to be brilliantly cast, bringing their character's conflict to life and handily overcoming any comparisons to Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellan, their mutual predecessors. The rest of the cast is sharp as well, although characters like Darwin (Edi Gathegi) understandably get a lot less screen time than Xavier and Erik do. Some viewers may be put off that characters like Emma Frost (January Jones) are essentially bit players here but it didn't bother me.

I'm not as fluent in the X-books as I am with other corners of the Marvel U so while I'm sure there's nitpicks to be made with continuity, I'm not aware of them. But even if I were, I probably wouldn't care. As a Spidey fanatic, I could make a case that the movie series should've had Betty Brant as Peter's first love, should have not introduced MJ until at least the third film, and should have kept the mystery of who the Green Goblin was running for a few films before his identity became a shocking reveal to Peter but I don't think there has to be such a painstaking attempt to emulate the books. As long as the essential spirit of the material is up on the screen along with most of the relevant character info, I'm good. To my eyes, First Class gets the X-Men right and I love that it pops off the screen with such Silver Age swagger.

The two Singer-directed X-films were smart but in terms of supplying comic book excitment, both left me kind of flat. I liked them but couldn't say I loved them. Brett Ratner's X-Men: The Last Stand (2006) and Gavin Hood's Wolverine were more appealingly "comic book" in their action but both were sadly knuckleheaded in other respects. First Class, in contrast, brings both the brains and the fun.

What works on a comic book page doesn't always carry over into film (or so we've been told) but yet Vaughn laces his film with touches that Singer (who is involved here as an executive producer) surely wouldn't have - such having Shaw tooling around in a submarine HQ that would've fit right into a Connery-era Bond movie. First Class is larger than life in a way that the previous X-films - and many modern comic book films in general - have been afraid to be. It lets its freak flag fly with real confidence, even as its characters struggle with their outsider status. Further, I'd like to say thanks to Vaughn for going against the grain and staging his action scenes with a clarity that's rare in modern movies. When several mutants are engaged in an ariel battle towards the end of First Class, it was thrilling to actually be able to follow what was going on (I also believe there was some old-school wirework involved in this scene, although I might be mistaken).

Extra kudos for the sly Superman II (1980) shout-out and for the very apt appearance of one of mutant-kind's finest, Michael Ironside, who played Darryl Revok in David Cronenberg's X-Men-ish classic Scanners (1981).

Based on the early photos from the film, I had serious doubts that First Class would be anything but an embarrassment (maybe not as bad as Wolverine but still an embarrassment). I like to think that I'm not normally susceptible to pre-judging but, to me, First Class looked truly awful. What a surprise, then, to find that this is one of the best films of its kind. Actually, strike that, it's just a great film period. Now if only First Class can become the hit that it deserves to be, hopefully we can get a '70s-set follow-up, with Dazzler lighting up the disco floor.